My library voluminous obsession

May 20, 2013


Not just novelists, poets, and dramatists but critics, humorists, detective writers, science-fiction writers, Western writers, black writers, political writers. Moreover, I was committed to collecting the work of every important writer in depth proofs, limited editions, variant issues, pamphlets, broadsides, English editions, magazine appearances. Just keeping up with some authors, I discovered, can be a full-time occupation. John Updike, for example, a writer still very much in his prime, has already produced 448 separate collectible items. Is it any wonder collectors can’t wait for their favorite authors to die?

My library is now too large and diverse to describe in detail, and the best I can offer here is some highlights. Car-lyle notwithstanding, it’s quality not quantity that counts.

Probably the most valuable volumes in my collection are first books by Faulkner, Auden, Pound, Williams, Nabokov, Mencken, and Lardner, among others. These first books are valuable not because they’re good indeed most are terrible but because they’re rare. Rare because they were published privately, subsidized by rich patrons or indulgent parents, and printed in very limited numbers. Few copies were made, and even fewer survived the ravages of time, fire, flood, and shipwreck. Frequently the author himself, out of shame, tried to destroy any remaining copies. As a result, Pound’s A Lume Spento, Williams’s Poems, and Faulkner’s The Marble Faun are authentic modern rarities and cornerstones of my collection.

There are several other so-called rarities in my collection which, I believe, have even greater intrinsic interest. James’s own annotated copy of his play The American, one of only nine copies printed. The original mimeograph version of the seminal postwar American poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg. The only known copy of Norman Mailer’s true first book, The foundation, predating his first commercial publication by several years. The Latin textbook of twelve-year-old Ezra Pound; Faulkner’s college yearbooks. These documents are significant not merely because they are rare but because they have important textual content.
The books that appeal to me the most are ones with personal associations ooks an author has handled, written in, and presented to someone he loves and admires. Like my copy of Dr. Martino in which the author, in his minuscule script, has written: “For my Mother with love Billy.”
Faulkner is not the only devoted son to be found in my library. There are many others, including Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and James M. Cain. Nor are mothers the only literary dedicatees. I also have Sister Carrie inscribed by Dreiser to his sister; books presented by Henry to Alice James; presentations by E. E. Cummings, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams to their wives; books from George S. Kaufman to his mother-in-law; JFK to his brother-in-law; Christopher Isherwood to his nanny. The most popular presentees by far are mistresses, and I have several choice examples from Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and John Berryman.

Like family presentations, books with literary associations have a special interest and cachet. Hemingway’s Three Stories & Ten Poems is a scarce book under any circumstances, but my copy is unique because it is inscribed by the author to his first mentor and champion, Edmund Wilson. My copy of Ash-Wednesday has resonance because it is “inscribed for Stephen Spender from his friend T. S. Eliot.” So, too, my copy of The Education presented to “H. Cabot Lodge with the regards of Henry Adams.” John O’Hara’s inscription in my copy of Butterfield 8 “To The Maestro” is eloquent proof of the enduring influence and importance of Maestro Hemingway. Just as Golden Boy, inscribed by Clifford Odets to his star, Frances Farmer, is a poignant reminder of their disastrous love affair. Who can resist books inscribed by Scott Fitzgerald to Herman Mankiewicz, Emma Goldman to John Reed, from Pep West to Dash and Lil, from Red Warren to rival fugitive Allen Tate, from Gertrude Stein to fellow lesbians Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, from Edith Wharton to her gardener, E. B. White to S. J. Perelman, or, for that matter, from Damon Runyon to William Randolph Hearst and from Booth Tarking-ton to Groucho Marx. I certainly can’t. For me such associations add essential spice and flavor to the literary stew.

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